'Frankenstein' foods: why my committee approved them

February 19, 1999

GM foods served at doom temperature. The scientists writing here, who have been at the forefront of improvements tofood safety, believe that the genetically modified foods on sale in Britain arecompletely safe.

The writers - Philip James, the man who drew up the blueprint for the proposed Food Standards Agency, Derek Burke, who chaired the committee that licensedthe GM foods on sale and Hugh Pennington, who chaired the investigation of the outbreak of E.coli in Scotland that claimed 20 lives, are deeply critical of unvalidated research into genetically modified potatoes by Arpad Pusztai. They are appalled by the heightening of public fears by this week's widespread reporting of Pusztai's research. The antidote? As the public is bombarded by suggestions that its food is about to be modified by such exotica as the genes that make jellyfish glow, government must establish an independent Food Standards Agency as quickly as possible.

Alarm over 'Frankenstein' foods'' and "Food scandals exposed'' scream the headlines in the press. Has something new and dreadful happened? Are we all about to be poisoned? The short answer is no. Nobody has died, nobody is even sick. But Greenpeace has intensified its campaign to discredit genetically modified foods and has seized on unpublished research by Arpad Pusztai to illustrate its arguments.

Regulating genetically modified foods is the job of the government's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes which I chaired for nine years. During that time it approved the introduction of the genetically modified tomato paste sold by Safeway's and Sainsbury's supermarkets. The committee, made up of experts from universities and research institutes all over Britain (with a consumer representative and an ethical adviser) does a pretty good job. It is much more open to public scrutiny than the equivalent processes in the rest of the EU, and certainly as tough as those in the US - we rejected some products that the US approved.

In the nine years I chaired the committee, no political or commercial pressures were put on me. Only once was I lobbied by a company, and the lobbying had no effect at all on the committee's decision. I had no contact with any food company, nor did I accept any money from them. Nor were we paid for the job we did, which was to advise government as honestly as we could about these new foods. There was never any pressure from ministers to alter our views.

This week's media blitz on GM foods started with an article on experiments on genetically modified potatoes carried out at the Rowett Research Institute by Pusztai. The results have only just been released - not peer reviewed - on the internet, so it has been difficult to know what has been going on. Moreover, he and his colleagues have refused to let members of the advisory committee for novel foods see their results.

Potatoes engineered in the way described by the press would not have been approved by the committee I chaired, nor would they be now. The first step would have been to ask the Committee on Toxicology for a full toxicity analysis. Greenpeace has used this non-event to call for an immediate ban on all GM food. The experiments provide no basis for such a ban.

Under current regulatory practices, novel foods, whether they are made by genetic modification or not, and most of them are not, are compared to existing foods, to see if they are substantially equivalent. If they are not, then they are referred to the Committee on Toxicology for further scrutiny.

The process whereby GM foods are regulated in Britain is tough and fair. Like everything else, it could be improved by opening up the process to rebuild confidence. The minutes of the ACNFP are already on the web and the committee has started to have some meetings in public. Let us have a grown-up debate and find a sensible solution to how we should introduce this new technology.

Derek Burke was chairman of the ACNFP from 1988 to 1997, and vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia from 1987 to 1995.

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